Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters
He’s used to having the worst seat in the house. Playing the trumpet in the orchestra pit, Lowell Hershey has been listening to Broadway audiences for decades but rarely gets to see the show in person. When The Phantom of the Opera opened in 1988, however, the Fomo became too much.
“I had never seen the show – I can’t even see the stage,” he says. “So, about six months into the show, I bought a ticket, hired a diver, and sat in the audience and watched because I was curious to see what the hell was a big deal about this.“
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As of last Saturday, according to Hershey’s tally, Phantom had attended 13,973 performances and played trumpet in 10,059 of them. When the production closes Sunday after 35 years, an all-time Broadway record, she will be in her usual seat at the Majestic Theater for her swan song.
Ghost superfans are sure to vie for tickets for one last chance to hear songs like Masquerade, Angel of Music, All I Ask of You and The Music of the Night. Based on the 1910 French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, the story revolves around a mysterious and disfigured ghost who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls in love with the young soprano Christine Daaé.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has been seen by over 140 million people worldwide and has grossed over $6 billion in revenue. British actor Michael Crawford was the original ghost in both the West End and Broadway productions (Gerard Butler played the part in a 2004 film adaptation).
But the show also left critics cold. Some see it as a flamboyant spectacle, the vanguard of a “British invasion” of New York theater that placed style over substance, commercial wit over high art. In the case of the charge against “the hit musical” and all that it implies, it could very well be Exhibit A.
Don’t tell Hershey, who started playing trumpet when he was nine and has played in many Broadway shows including Nicholas Nickleby, Big River, Rockabye Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof, A Little Night Music and Follies. When work on Phantom came along, he was immediately hooked on his lush and romantic score.
“I thought the music sounded good,” the 75-year-old says by phone from New York. “The parts we play have been beautifully orchestrated. If you don’t understand the instrument, it is possible to sit down and write a trumpet part that is impossible to play, even though it may be within the range of what a trumpet player is capable of playing.
“The orchestrator who made Phantom clearly understood all the instruments. There aren’t many players who can write for harp, but he did, so the harp part is just beautiful and not terribly difficult. He made it playable. My first reaction was: oh, that’s going to be nice!“
The instant success of Phantom on Broadway did not entirely take Hershey by surprise because it had already been played to packed audiences in London. “When it was announced that it would open in New York, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it would be a huge hit, that no matter what the reviews said in New York, it would run for maybe a couple of days.” ‘years at least. There was no one who would have thought it could last 35 years. There’s never been anything like it.”
After three and a half decades, does Hershey have to know every line by heart? “Certainly there is nothing that surprises me except when someone says the wrong line or something goes wrong. Every now and then there is a little accident and it wakes me up from my reverie.
In one show, he recalls, the famous drop of the chandelier at the end of the first act could not take place for safety reasons because a careless stagehand had accidentally left some sheet music in it. “I remember walking past the stage door on my way out and hearing a voice inside saying, ‘Tell me again how the music ended up on the chandelier.'”
Phantom runs in the family. His daughter performed in the roadshow version of the musical for two years. So the end of Phantom’s run — widely seen as an aftershock from the coronavirus pandemic that has curtailed tourism — will inevitably be a moment for reflection, even if he has no plans to retire.
“It’s sad. There’s no question about it because I’ve had this family that I hang out with. Musicians are always at the theater long before the show starts. Some people may get there as little as 10 minutes early, but that’s not the kind of job where you can simply walk in, go to your desk and do your job.
“You have to be there and then be ready to play at a particular moment. So we go around and shoot – you talk to people and these people have become family. Even some of the subs who are not full-time orchestra members have been subs on the show for more than 30 years. I will miss the block.
When the final curtain falls on Sunday, there will be plenty of time to reflect on how and why Phantom became the longest-running show in Broadway history (the crown now passes to Chicago, which began in 1996) and has won seven Tony awards and seven Drama Desk. Hershey has a couple of thoughts.
One is its producer: Cameron Mackintosh, whose shows Les Misérables and Cats have also enjoyed epic longevity. “This guy changed the way Broadway shows are marketed to people. I can’t understand why Cats ran for so long being the kind of show it was – there wasn’t much there. He is basically a marketing genius.
The other key was the director: Hal Prince. Hershey comments: “He probably pushed Andrew Lloyd Webber in ways to lead in terms of character development and this and that and the other thing that made him who he is. It was great.
Hershey suggests that Broadway was dying in the 1970s and that “the British invasion” helped turn it into a popular tourist destination. This version of events has led to much ambivalence about Lloyd Webber’s legacy. Five years ago a New Yorker magazine headline asked, “Did Andrew Lloyd Webber Ruin the Musical or Save It?”
Hershey is adamant: “It always pisses off reviewers when they review a show and realize that whatever they write, it won’t matter because we had a $26 million early sale when we opened. At the time, in 1988, it was great progress and so they could have written the worst reviews possible and it wouldn’t have made a difference whether people came or not. This is irritating to them.“
Some reviewers were really skeptical. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich found the lyrics full of “crippling and interchangeable pseudo-Hammersteinisms” and the score “so generic that most of the songs could be rearranged and redistributed among the characters (indeed, among the another Lloyd Webber musical) without altering the story or the meaning of the show”.
She wrote: “Never has Mr Lloyd Webber’s aesthetic been more forthrightly stated than in this exhibition, which favors the decorative trappings of art over the troublesome substance of culture and finds more eroticism in rococo opulence and consumption conspicuous than in love or sex”.
A generation later, Phantom remains unquestionably a polished monument to 80s kitsch, a jeweled music box that opens to reveal its own emptiness. It has earned a place in the new Museum of Broadway, which includes a chandelier installation made up of more than 13,000 sparkling crystals, each representing a Broadway performance of the show.
Ben West, the museum’s resident historian and curator of the time walls, says, “This is not a well-written musical. If you want to do an objective analysis of The Phantom of the Opera, this is not a great show, but there is a difference between the show, which is the underlying opera, and the production of such material that you see on stage .
“The production is extraordinary. It’s Harold Prince at the top of his game. It’s an amazing feat of performance and stagecraft on the part of him and the other members of the physical creative team. His staging uses every inch of the stage and is consistently interesting and has an amazing tension that makes up for a tension that is lacking in the show itself.
West, a musical theater artist and author of the forthcoming book The American Musical, continues: “It’s just an amazing staging of a very underwhelming play and I think the staging is largely what the people are responding: a very artistic show. I see the profound flaws and inadequacies in the material and yet the production of the Harold Prince show is quite extraordinary.
“I feel that the success is largely due to his work. Certainly there is the Andrew Lloyd Webber name recognition factor and the ear worm melodies with their endless repetition which certainly add to the memorability of a particular piece. Looking at it as a work of musical theater in the grand scheme, to me it’s really a triumph of Harold Prince first and foremost.
Phantom spawned a less successful sequel, Love Never Dies, and it seems fair to assume that Phantom will never die either. Marching in London at least through March, showing his masked face around the world and likely one day making a dramatic and lucrative return to Broadway.
John Flynn, author of Phantoms of the Opera: The Face Behind the Mask, has seen the show 13 times on three continents. He says, “There’s an underlying basis that has to do with every man or woman who has ever been considered a loser. The ghost itself is disfigured but no different from anyone else.
“There are a lot of men out there that women don’t want to go out on a date with because they might not look like the traditional lead, if you will. All so are the ghost. They just want to be loved.“
Speaking from West Palm Beach, Florida, Flynn, 68, adds: “The Really Useful Group has invested a lot of money into making the show shine and I’m actually a little sad that it’s ending its record-breaking run on Broadway because I would have thought it would have continued to run for years. But it will come back in a few years and there will be a new interpretation and I can’t wait.